And here is the harp’s evolution since 1862. Looks like Guinness wanted to reintroduce some detail.
Now, the harp has been a symbol of Ireland since medieval times; King Henry VIII chose it as the main charge in Ireland’s coat of arms when he elevated Ireland to the status of a kingdom in 1541. King James I added it to the arms of the United Kingdom when he acceded in 1603, and it has remained there ever since.
Most of Ireland, of course, is no longer under the control of the British monarch. The Free State, upon its creation in 1922, chose the harp as its state emblem. The specific rendition that they used was that of Brian Boru – somewhat like the Guinness logo. From Wikipedia, here is an image of the seal of the Irish Free State:
And from my own collection, the obverse of an Irish pound coin from 1990:
The flag of the president of Ireland even uses the same color scheme as the royal arms: a blue field, a gold harp, and silver strings.
You’ll notice that the Irish state harp faces to the left – unlike the Guinness harp, which faces to the right. Apparently, the reason for this is that the Brian Boru harp was trademarked by Guinness in 1876, and the Irish State had to distinguish their harp from the Guinness one! An article on Irish Central can tell you more. This resurfaced as an issue in 1983, according to the Irish Times:
The office of the attorney general recommended registering the harp facing in both directions with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to give maximum protection from image theft.
But the government feared Guinness could challenge the decision as it had been using a “right-facing” harp symbol “some fifty years or more before the founding of the state”…
Patent agents Tomkins & Co, employed by the government on the case, informed officials the following month, however, “we do not consider that mirror images of the harp symbol could be notified to WIPO” under existing rules. While the state might be able to register a right-facing harp “it is possible that such notification could debar the registration by Guinness of their trademark in territories where they do not currently trade but may wish to do so in the foreseeable future”.
The government took the agents’ advice and in 1984 registered with WIPO a “generic”, nine-stringed harp facing in just one direction – left.
And here I thought that it was not an issue between Ireland and some commercial concern, but between Ireland and the United Kingdom. By using the same direction (and color scheme) of the harp in the arms of the kingdom of Ireland, surely the Irish State was simply trying to claim Irish symbols for itself – as though to say, “We’ll take it from here, UK!” But I guess that the form of the harp matters too. You can understand why only the Brian Boru harp would be good enough for the Irish State – and certainly more appropriate than a topless female – leading to the aesthetic conflict with the Guinness Co.